Eastern Mennonite University

Special 90th anniversary issue

Class of '59 Chose to Serve

By J. Daniel Hess

class members from '59
In the Vesper Heights observatory/planetarium, behind a Spitz machine, are several members of the class of '59 (from left): Roy Hartzler '59, John Hershey '58, Daniel Miller Jr. '59 (behind, partially obscured), Glen M. Kauffman '60, Richard Stoltzfus '59, Joseph C. Shenk '60, Robert Hostetler '59, Dorothy Martin '62.

From this vantage point seven years into the 21 st Century, I reflect upon the “investments” of the North American Mennonite Church in the 20 th Century.

Besides the contributions to maintain congregational life, the church devoted millions of dollars to five priorities:

How did these investments turn out?

I wish to explore the investment in education, and here at the start, higher education. Because of the many institutions and programs dedicated to Mennonite-related higher education, I have decided to begin with just one university – Eastern Mennonite (my Alma Mater).

Even with that selection, the population is very large, so I have selected small samples for study. Thus the exploration is limited and my observations must be qualified. Nonetheless I have confidence that what I am finding in regards to Eastern Mennonite bespeaks the experience of the larger universe of colleges, universities and seminaries of the Mennonite Church.

As a place to begin, I opted to look at one graduating class. “Use 1955” suggested one friend. “The class of 1960” said another. With the thought that I might be able to get information more effectively from my own class, I preferred to review what happened to my classmates who graduated from Eastern Mennonite College in 1959.

I have made two large assumptions: (1) graduates are influenced by the ambiance of the college that they attend for four years and (2) the life work of the graduate is an indicator of the “return on investment” made by the college’s sponsoring agencies.

I also wish to make two qualifiers. With no desire to denigrate my Alma Mater, I must admit that Eastern Mennonite (then) College in 1959 did not have much status in higher education. It hadn’t yet received its accreditation. Of 46 faculty members, only eight held doctoral degrees. The library was small and the endowment non-existent. Nonetheless EMC was indeed a church-supported school. It had a strong church-influenced campus ambiance; and it conveyed churchly expectations to its alumni. A degree from EMC did indeed mean something. The expectations and meanings may not have been consciously felt or articulated well by everyone at that time, however the “cultural unconscious” now becomes evident when we learn what happened to my classmates.

Second, while I have fond memories of classmates, I don’t think our class was exceptional. Led by Faculty Member Irvin Horst, we were about 40 women and 40 men pictured in the Shenandoah, the campus yearbook.* Many of us came from rural or small town congregations. Quite a few had graduated from Mennonite high schools. But I do not now think of this class as a community of geniuses, charismatic leaders or spiritual giants. We may even have carried to campus a piece or two of demut – the Amish and Mennonite commitment to and enforcement of humbleness that would have forbad anyone from venturing to aspire to leadership.

(*The official Class of 1959 includes people not pictured in the yearbook – people who attended for less than four years, for example, or earlier matriculants who happened to complete all of their graduation requirements in 1959. I preferred to focus on the group that was together through graduation.)

So, what happened to the Class of 59?

Vocational fields

I can throw this section into perspective by identifying fields that graduates of mainline universities in 1959 might have entered: engineering, architecture, law, computer programming, transportation, environmental service, genetics, mining, manufacturing, and government service. With isolated exceptions, our class did not enter these professions.

Instead, the class of 1959 chose to enter a rather limited range of vocations that fit the category called Human Services. More than one fourth of the class spent at least a segment of their careers in health professions. Several examples:

While that proportion of the class entering one field seems unusual, I observe that an equal or greater number of classmates spent at least a segment of their careers in another Human Services field -- education. Examples:

The third Human Services field – social work – did not draw as many classmates, yet the contribution is significant.

Vocational choices in three fields of Human Services – health, education and social work -- attracted more than 75% of my classmates.

The remaining classmates – those that I could learn of – chose a variety of professions. Millard Benner, James Goering, Wilbur Lentz and Amos Ramer became pastors in Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Indiana respectively. George Miller was a missionary in Honduras, David Shenk was a missionary in East Africa and later a missions consultant. Raymond Schlabach was a Bible translator in Costa Rica. Clair Schnupp became a missions social worker in northern Ontario, Canada.

At least three spent at least part of their careers in business-type fields: Elton Bomberger (bookstore); David Hege (home redecorating); Arvilla Schultz Leis (retail); Mary Petre Wilfong (furniture) and Pauline Zehr Myers (crafts). Ella Huber Coffman directed food service in a retirement center. John Glick spent part of his career as a farmer. A number of classmates made the telling point of listing homemaking as a full or part-time career.

The international perspective

In learning of my classmates’ vocational choices, I became aware of international connections. Eastern Mennonite College in 1959 did not mirror the more limited nationalistic orientation of many universities. International programs did not become popular on university campuses until the 1970s. EMC, if its graduates were an accurate indicator, was far ahead of the crowd. Nonetheless I would not have guessed that so many of us would spend at least one year in work or service assignments outside of continental U.S. Here is a partial list.


Earlier in this article I suggested that my college class was not populated by would-be leaders. We didn’t talk in those terms. I had even known of examples where youth were reproved for aspirations to be leaders. Eastern Mennonite didn’t infuse its ambiance with notions of leadership. Nonetheless, the alumni became leaders.

I must qualify what I just wrote. EMC did not produce bright stars. I didn’t check recent Who’s Who editions, but not many, if any, of my classmates would be listed. The leadership was of a different kind – unsought, unexpected and unglamorous. We occasionally hear the term Servant Leader; that term seems to describe my classmates. Many took jobs not as leaders but as ordinary staff, but soon established their credentials by their work habits and philosophy of life. Many of them, after being appointed to leadership, continued in this capacity for many years. Let me illustrate with a few examples, knowing that in making such a list, I exclude others.

These examples, however, do not complete a report of servant leaders. I find hints between the lines: “taught English, social studies, PE and coaching in middle school for the first seven years, four of those Alberta, Canada where we also helped out in a small church. Later went to Ohio University to obtain my Master's in Guidance and Counseling. Worked 27+ years in the Southwestern City Schools, Grove City, OH as a guidance counselor in middle schools.” Even at the point of retirement, this classmate does not proclaim to have been a leader.

The church connection

As in the previous paragraph where a classmate nearly hides the fact of helping a small church in Alberta, Canada, so the church-relatedness of vocational work does not jump out for notice. But it’s there.

Lots of the positions mentioned above were located within church schools or health and welfare agencies. Examples: Roy Hartzler worked for Mennonite Board of Education and taught at Bethany Christian High School; Rhoda King taught for 40 years at West Fallowfield Christian School. Glen Roth worked for Lancaster Mennonite Conference and later EMU.

Others gave a portion of their careers to the church. Joseph Longacher, while a medical doctor in Richmond, was president of Virginia Mennonite Conference. Willis Miller, after devoting most of his career to medical research at Merck & Company, accepted the call to pastor a Pennsylvania congregation. Janice Sensenig first taught in East Africa and later worked with the church-related Ten Thousand Villages.

How can we count the number of audiences addressed in sermons, seminars, and Sunday school classes by male and female members of the class? Who knows how many of us led songs in church? served as MYF sponsor? contributed at least one summer to a Mennonite church camp? My best guess is that this class wrote at least 20 books published by Mennonite Publishing House.

My cursory study of my class leads me to this summary:

These four observations can be given flesh and blood by a visit with two classmates whom we all loved and enjoyed back in 1959. Their lives convey what my words can’t.

Richard Stoltzfus

Richard Stoltzfus came to EMC in 1955 from Atglen, Pennsylvania. A graduate of Lancaster Mennonite School, he was a gentle yet fun-loving classmate who, according to his report, made average and above average grades enroute to a major in chemistry and a minor in biology. Not sure of his vocational future he opted for alternate service to military participation by working for three years as a research technician at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. While there he participated in Mennonite House of Friendship where he met his future wife Elaine Hunter.

He and Elaine got married. With the encouragement of a Columbia physician, Richard interviewed and was accepted into Hahnemann Medical School in Philadelphia. After four years he took a rotating internship at Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital in nearby Darby.

Although Richard was now qualified for a medical position and Elaine had a teaching post, they wanted to volunteer their services. As Richard says, “I did my I-W service in New York, but really, it was a job. I got paid. We wanted to do more than that.” Mennonite Central Committee suggested Indonesia or Haiti. They chose the latter, where, after a brief one-month orientation at Grande Rivier du Nord hospital, Richard was on his own for a three-year “testing in the fire.” He says, “I saw things in Haiti I never saw in medical school and haven’t seen since.” Elaine directed the MCC’s Educational Assistance Program that gave scholarships and other assistance to Haitian schoolchildren. She also gave birth to Jill in 1969.

They returned to Philadelphia for the first year of a split term residency in internal medicine at Mercy Catholic Medical Center in Philadelphia. There Mark was born.

Back to Grande Rivier du Nord they went for three more years, giving to Haiti their youthful energies and training. Richard remembers Haiti as a high point in his own development. He particularly remembers the going away party in which a humble Haitian woman got up and said, “You saved my baby’s life.”

Richard completed the residence in internal medicine. Now where?

“We thought about it,” remembers Richard and then he calls to the kitchen: “Elaine, why did we choose Appalachia?” Their answer came in phrases – “where needed,” “out of the mainstream,” “less materialistic.” He reminded me how deeply they had been influenced by the poverty of Haiti.

They ended up in Harlan, a mountainous coal mining region in southern Kentucky where poverty and illness were widespread. A high percentage of the population lived on Medicaid. A second attraction to the area was the fact that a small Mennonite community welcomed their participation.

Today is thirty years later. Richard has now worked as an internist at the Daniel Boone Clinic that is associated with Appalachian Regional Health Care. He sees 20 to 30 people a day, many of them suffering from heart and lung ailments, diabetes, depression and back pain. His words are respectful of his patients and later he admits that “here they call me Richard.” He says thinking of retirement is difficult.

Their years in Harlan are punctuated by a huge flood in 1977 that left their house under four feet of water. They lived out of suitcases with people from church for four months. Not until the late 1990s did they own a house. Prior to that they enjoyed forms of intentional group living with another family in the church and clinic.

What motivates Richard? It certainly isn’t wealth. “By local standards I am rich. By professional standards I am not.” Again he refers to Haiti.

He speaks of his limited administrative and organizational skills, but then finds words to describe his deep desire to help people, and to have them experience wholeness.

Of EMU Richard speaks fondly, mentioning four things given to him by the school: a focus on Christian faith, a call to follow Christ, a regard for Scripture and the emphasis on reaching out to others.

Ruth Nisly

Ruth Nisly was a neat, expressive English major from Salem Oregon. There was a touch of red in her hair and an attractive smile on her face.

A world citizen, Ruth’s vocational choices have taken her to many countries – India, Ireland, Lithuania, Korea, China, Colombia and the Philippines. She has a hard time considering herself lucky but quickly acknowledges she has been greatly blessed because of people she has met.

One aspect of her career has involved her major in English. She has taught English as a foreign language at Lithuania Christian College, Sichuan Province in China ( Zigong and Pixian) and Colombia (in La Mesa at a Mennonite school).

However, her first love in life has been children. “I have always loved children,” she says. “I grew up in a large family; lots of children were always around.” She has been “Aunt Ruth” to a large bevy of nieces and nephews, to their friends, and to children of her adult friends. She pays tribute to her Mother’s influence as an example of connecting with people.

Ruth worked for about a decade with Holt International Children’s Services which was concerned with orphans and abandoned children of post-war Korea. Ruth went there to work at the Children’s Center that focused its service on children who, for medical reasons, couldn’t meet U.S. visa requirements. She worked with pregnant women, with unstable families and with foster families. Trips home were always as an escort for children going to adoptive families in the United States. The Center’s work has been a model for child care services. While the program had begun before Ruth arrived, greater impetus for comprehensive services was achieved during her tenure.

Another decade of Ruth’s career was given to Lutheran Family Services in Portland that addressed the needs of Southeast Asian children who were survivors of political instability in Viet Nam, of the holocaust in Cambodia, the unrest and turmoil of Laos. They became some of the “boat people” and found their way into refugee camps in southeast Asia, and on arrival in the U.S. were placed with foster families. Her work took her to a holding center in the Philippines.

A next vocational stop was with Children’s Services in Vancouver, British Columbia that attended to foster children seriously affected by autism, alcohol syndrome, medical, physical and emotional challenges.

Along the way she became active tutoring English at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization in Portland that has served the needs of newcomers to the area. She has worshipped with the Portland Mennonite Church where she has been elder for two six-year terms, a Sunday school teacher and has served on her local conference mission Board and peace and justice committee.

Recently the mother of a young man now teaching in China wanted to visit him but hesitated to go alone. So she asked Ruth to join her. Ruth was able on the trip to meet former students and staff of 16 years ago who warmly welcomed her. “Thank you so much for remembering us” they told her.

“I am so grateful,” says Ruth. “The grace of God is always flowing toward me, urging me into new adventures. And I have the freedom of spirit to find in these occasions the wonderful opportunities to make friends and experience other cultures. How good it is to notice the blessings of God and to claim them.”

Ruth reflects on her college experience. “My years at EMC were a time of self discovery and self-definition, a time for forming deep and lasting friendships, of gaining a deeper understanding of Scriptures and a clearer call to discipleship.” She refers to the influences from “godly women and men who modeled competency in their areas of expertise, commitment coupled with humility.” From her college years she learned to “value serving more than gaining financially.” EMC experiences led her to “a fuller dedication to faithfully follow Christ.”


Richard and Ruth illustrate vividly the attraction of my classmates into Human Services vocations. Both lived and worked for at least a year outside of continental United States and both can truly be called Servant Leaders. And in each case, denominational and congregational life continued to be important for them.

EMU surely deserves credit for what it gave to the class of 1959. But surely we recognize that EMU was just one of the agencies of influence on those youth. Probably for most of the class members, they arrived at EMU with a disposition shaped by their homes, congregations, possibly the youth group activities, perhaps summer camp, and in cases, a voluntary service assignment. For some students, EMU was an early inspiration; for others, a channel; and for others, a connector.

Why the choice of just a few vocational fields?

In the first place, the church in the decade of the 1950s gave high priority to Christian service. The ambiance of Eastern Mennonite College reflected that priority. Second, the relatively few vocational fields chosen were those that the Mennonite faculty had pursued. Professors such as Daniel Suter, who already in 1959 had paved good highways to medical schools, attracted the attention of science majors. The faculty, committed to the teaching of students, conveyed a values system that gave high priority to human and Christian service.

Why the disposition to work internationally?

In my days at EMC I recall that we thought highly of missionaries and did not suppose that foreign service was all that unusual. In fact, we knew other students who had already served for two years or more in PAX service. Our seniors had volunteered for post World War II relief positions.

Why the emergence into leadership?

My classmates had learned as children the values of quality work. These values were then complemented by the powers of skills, commitment and training. On the job their values and work habits commended them for carrying responsibility and thus, several years into the job, they were called on to lead. Yet in those leadership positions they retained the mind of a servant rather than lord.

Why the continued church relatedness?

Not all of the class of ’59 remained in the Mennonite Church. Some dropped religious affiliation altogether. However, the large majority not only retained membership but became active in support of the denomination, a congregation, or a specific church project. Why? I would suggest a two-part (and reciprocal) explanation: EMU did a good job of imparting the Mennonite understanding of faith; as the graduates later continued to develop their philosophies of life, they found expression for their values and commitments in church-related endeavors.

I come to the end of the first part of my inquiry into the return on investment of the Mennonite Church in higher education. If the Eastern Mennonite University Class of ’59 is a fair illustration of college classes in all of the Mennonite colleges – and I believe it is – the results call for gratitude indeed.

Back to table of contents or read another article from J. Daniel Hess on EMU alumni